It seems like the FARC are now officially part of Colombia’s political mainstream. Following last year’s ground-breaking peace deal with the government, the group has now altered its name (while keeping the same abbreviation), launched its own political party and changed its logo. The crossed rifles below an open book has now been replaced by a red rose with a tiny red star in the centre, the origin of which comes from an old revolutionary song. It’s a change which suggests that the FARC is putting a lot of effort into presenting itself as friendly, trustworthy and, ultimately, relevant. But will its efforts be enough?
The FARC’s first real test as a newly established political party will be next March’s parliamentary elections. Opinion polls suggest that the overall image of the organisation is predominantly negative, with 84% of respondents in one poll viewing FARC in a negative light. This is hardly the ideal start for a fledgling political movement.
In the buildup to the elections, the former guerrillas have also been doing their bit to increase popularity. On September 1, the FARC launched their campaign with a so-called mega concert featuring national stars like Totó la Momposina in Bogotá’s main square. It was a stunt that quickly backfired. In the days after the event, concerns were raised over where the money came from.
As it turned out, throwing a big party with huge screens, projectors and dozens of lights and speakers right after declaring their (suspiciously insufficient-looking) assets, was a miscalculation. According to the peace agreement, these were supposed to finance reparations to victims of its 50+ years conflict with the authorities. The Minister of the Interior Guillermo Rivera’s declaration that not a single peso was sponsored by the government did little to calm a disgruntled Colombian public.
If the FARC is to become a serious political player in Colombia, there are several lessons that it needs to learn. Lesson number one is that money is vulgar, at least in the hands of former fighters who must compensate more than 8 million victims.
Generally speaking, many observers have been troubled by the FARC’s overall commitment to the peace process. Back in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared that the group had agreed to hand over 14,000 weapons. However, the UN claims that the FARC has only handed back 8,994 weapons ( with 750 arms caches were destroyed in the process). This discrepancy has aggravated respondents who voted ‘No’ in last October’s plebiscite on the proposed peace deal. None more so than Álvaro Uribe, the former president and current senator who is a prominent opponent of the Peace deal and well-known for his uncompromising strategy for dealing with Marxist guerrillas. Uribe’s Centro Democrático party has indicated that if it forms next government it will seek to amend a peace agreement that was recently declared unmodifiable by the Constitutional Court, a move which could spell trouble for the FARC. The group could have headed off concerns by synchronising its message with the current government and complying with a key component of the peace process from the outset.
Lesson number two: don’t arm your enemies.
FARC has fared much better with its social media activities (or at least better than most political parties). Its Facebook and Twitter accounts are full of messages and images that portray Colombians marvellous human beings that can achieve almost anything. The group also makes sure not to overlook Colombia’s indigenous peoples who were quite often victims of the conflict. But that’s not to say that FARC has lost its fondness for the struggle and the fight.
When the opportunity arises, the FARC’s social media channels also quote ‘rebels’ like Che Guevara or Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (the assassinated presidential candidate of the Colombian Liberal Party) to criticise government policy and accuse the military of massacres. These include the recent events in Tumaco. Even though La Fiscalía (Public Prosecutor’s Office) has yet to declare who was responsible for the deaths of seven farmers, the FARC was quick to blame the shootings on the military. However, the FARC’s attempts to play the ‘blame game’ seem counterintuitive given that Santos is regularly accused of being too soft on the group, particularly when it comes to arms control and asset declaration. Moreover, the Colombian president is fighting hard to justify the peace process and protect his political legacy. The FARC would be mad not to capitalise on his predicament.
Lesson number three: don’t burn your bridges.
There’s undoubtedly room for improvement with the FARC’s efforts to improve its standing with a war-weary Colombian public. For instance, the group needs to demonstrate that it is willing to leave its old rhetoric behind and work with the government on a host of social and economic issues. It should also be more humble and grateful for the opportunities that their former political enemies have offered them. Acceptance is not an easy thing to win after such a long conflict that touched the lives of every Colombian. It will take more than motivational posts on social media to change people’s attitudes. It will take a change of psyche.